Addressing the state of the state

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Gov. Jim Gibbons works with his chief of staff, Mike Dayton, on Wednesday at the Capitol. Gibbons will present his State of the State address Monday evening, outlining his $7 billion budget plan.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Gov. Jim Gibbons works with his chief of staff, Mike Dayton, on Wednesday at the Capitol. Gibbons will present his State of the State address Monday evening, outlining his $7 billion budget plan.

Legislative leaders say they aren't sure what to expect from Gov. Jim Gibbons in his first State of the State address Monday evening.

But they were clear the first major issue they'll face in the 2007 Legislature will be education.

"Out of the chute, it's going to be education," said Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas.

And Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said the first major challenge may well be the Education First initiative Gibbons authored because that constitutional amendment requires public education be funded before anything else.

"Hopefully we can agree on some budget for K-12 early," said Raggio, who is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

On both sides of the aisle, members of leadership said they were approaching Gibbons' first policy address with an open mind.

"What I would hope for is a realistic budget that takes into account our growing population and the impacts of that growth on roads, human services and education," said Ways and Means Vice Chairwoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno.

She said there have been stories saying that Gibbons was making just minor changes to the budget package prepared under outgoing Gov. Kenny Guinn, and others that said he was making major changes.

"I'm not sure what to expect. What I'm looking for, sincerely, is a vision for his administration. The governor is our leader and I'm hoping, Monday night, to hear what his vision is for the next four years and a budget to implement that vision."

Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, took a similar approach.

"I certainly hope he addresses some of the issues we think are critical for the state," she said. "One is improvements in our education system."

She said her caucus is already working on ideas to improve teacher salaries, implement "pay for performance for teachers who achieve extraordinary results," and changes to high school classes to better appeal to the needs of students and keep them in school.

And she said she hopes to work with Gibbons on those needs.

But she emphasized that she still believes all-day kindergarten is a necessity to long-term improvement in student achievement - which may become a bone of contention since Gibbons has already cut the money for all-day kindergarten out of Guinn's budget.

He said all-day kindergarten in at-risk schools has just been implemented and the state should look at test results before committing to expand it to all schools, at a cost of up to $100 million a year.

Assemblyman Arberry said he doesn't need to wait because, with a number of at-risk schools in his North Las Vegas district, he is already hearing from parents.

"They see the difference in their child when they go to first grade," Arberry said.

Sen. Bob Beers, however, said the jury's still out in his mind and he believes the focus should be more on middle and high school.

"If you look at our standardized test scores in fourth grade, we're about average," he said. "By eighth grade, we're below average so it's not elementary school where we have a problem. Secondary school is really where we need to put our attention."

Raggio echoed the concern about the cost of all-day kindergarten saying Nevada is approaching the statutory general fund spending cap and might not be able to afford that program in the future. And he said he too would like to see some analysis on the benefits of all-day kindergarten.

Raggio and Arberry said the state's overcrowded prison system is also in need of some expensive attention. The Guinn budget included more than $60 million in prison construction to relieve overcrowding and that is expected to remain in the plans. The Assembly this session created a special committee headed by David Parks, D-Las Vegas, to study prison, parole and probation needs.

And they all said funding for road construction - especially in the south - is critical.

Raggio said he sees value in Gibbons' decision to begin prefunding health benefits for state retirees but that changes in the program will also be needed to fix that problem such as raising copay amounts or limiting who can receive retiree health-care subsidies.

He said not dealing with the issue could hurt the state's bond rating, potentially costing taxpayers millions in the future.

Buckley and Leslie said lawmakers must not forget about health and human services needs. Buckley said better health-care programs can help reduce major medical and mental health costs in the long run - including reducing the number of the mentally ill going to prison.

"We have done a great deal of background work on health care and have major initiatives coming," she said, adding she is hoping for some help in that area in the form of federal dollars from the Democrat-controlled Congress.

Beers said he expects Gibbons and lawmakers will have to make some significant changes to the budget.

"We'll definitely have to fix this because I think Gov. Guinn created another budget designed to have multi-year effects ."

He said all-day kindergarten is a good example because, while it's affordable to start the program this biennium, there might not be enough money to continue it in 2009-2011.

Raggio said in the end, none of the issues on the horizon this year are really surprising or, in fact, new. And Arberry said at the core of all those issues is Nevada's growth.

"It just never stops," he said.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.

Looking back

A summary of the State of the State addresses from the past eight years given by former Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Jan. 18, 1999

Gov. Kenny Guinn shouldered his way past lawmakers who had been eying the tobacco settlement money, proposing the state spend more than half the $48 million a year on a "Millennium Scholarship" program to guarantee Nevada students a college education.

The proposal came at the end of an hour-long State of the State address that painted a grim picture of the state budget, included no raises for public employees and tough cuts in programs throughout the executive branch.

Guinn said the other half of Nevada's tobacco settlement money could support public health programs. But he urged lawmakers to support a program that would provide up to $2,500 a year for every Nevada high school graduate with a B average or better.

Jan. 22, 2001

Gov. Guinn told lawmakers his budget contained no new tax increases despite providing state workers with 4 percent raises in each of the next two years and increasing a variety of human services programs.

He outlined pay raises for state workers and a series of health and human services programs. Those included expanding the SenioRx prescription program, changes to expand and improve child welfare programs, funding for basic health-care coverage for uninsured families, a 40 percent increase in Medicaid waivers, doubling the money to help disabled people stay in their homes and money for breast and cervical cancer coverage for uninsured women.

Jan. 20, 2003

Saying it would be "a choice of political cowardice" not to fund the needs of seniors, needy children and students, Gov. Guinn asked lawmakers to support tax increases totaling just under $1 billion to balance the budget.

Even with that much money, however, Guinn said most of the state's agencies would be getting only enough money to maintain existing programs.

Refusing to deal with the state's financial shortfall, he said, would leave thousands of seniors without nursing home care, affordable medicine and their independence; force 27,000 new students into overcrowded classes; deny thousands access to higher education; eliminate health insurance for needy children; and cut support for Medicaid recipients and the mentally ill.

Jan. 24, 2005

Gov. Guinn said state employees and teachers would get a 2 percent pay raise each year of the next biennium if lawmakers approved his budget.

And state law enforcement personnel including corrections officers as well as "selected" other positions like nurses would do a lot better than that - receiving an increase of two full pay grades worth about 10 percent more pay.

Among Guinn's key initiatives were $100 million for kindergarten through sixth-grade initiatives; $106.7 million more to handle Medicaid growth; and $107 million over the next two years to expand mental health services. He also called for a $300 million rebate to taxpayers from the surplus in Nevada's treasury.

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